Cholera Epidemics

An explanation of Cholera from Wikipedia

The following is an explanation from a nineteenth century New Jersey physician:

"The cramps, which first were confined to the fingers and toes, attack the extremities themselves, and the patient cries out with agony. The features of the face assume that indescribable but never-to-be forgotten appearance, which is so characteristic of the disease. The skin assumes a leaden or brownish colour. The countenance becomes sharpened and elongated. The extremities also now begin to feel cold, and that coldness approaches the trunk. By degrees, the pulse becomes weaker and quicker, till it is no longer perceptible, the voice becomes fainter and fainter, and finally dies away into a scarcely audible whisper, the thirst increases to an intolerable degree. Purging and vomiting may or may not continue, the secretion of urine ceases, the countenance assumes a more lurid hue, the features continue to sharpen, the eyes turn upward, the nervous derangement seems to increase, a cold, clammy sweat breaks out over the whole body and the patient sinks into a state of almost irrevocable collapse."

Excerpts from “Newark, The Unhealthiest City 1832 – 1895” by Stuart Galishoff:

Every summer from 1850 to 1853 sporadic cases of cholera occurred in Newark but were hidden from the public to avoid exciting any unnecessary apprehensions. By the first week of July 1854 the disease had reached epidemic proportions. On July 6 lime was distributed to the citizens of Newark and on July 7 a special Health Committee was formed to deal with the emergency. The committee began a vigorous drive to improve sanitary conditions, scavengers were hired to cart away garbage, privies were cleaned, stagnant pools were covered with lime, gutters and alleys were swept clean, excretus was removed from animal pens and an ordinance was passed regulating the keeping of swine and the butchering of animals.

Special attention was paid to tenements where the laboring poor were crowded into poorly lighted and badly ventilated apartments and damp basements. When cholera appeared in a tenement in the slum ridden Down Neck area of Newark, a special investigative committee ordered that forty of the sixty families in residence of an area of tenements be required to move and the landlord was ordered to make needed sanitary repairs. In some instances, tenants living in adjacent buildings were also evicted.

By late August the disease began afflicting the “better classes” The Sentinel of Freedom reported that the miasmatic and intemperance theories of cholera appeared to be invalid. The disease had proved fatal to many “who were not particularly subject to any deleterious influence, and who were temperate and regular in personal habits.”

Nearly 600 persons, more than 1% of the population perished from this outbreak. On one street the disease claimed 24 of the 28 residents. Because it was feared business interests would be harmed by a full disclosure of the tragedy, the severity of the epidemic was not revealed until the following year.

The Sixth Ward, or Hill section of the city, home of some ten to fifteen thousand recently arrived German immigrants, was hit hardest. In a letter to the Newark Daily Advertiser, a “Committee of Germans” laid the blame for their community’s plight on the existence f stagnant pools of water resulting from faulty street construction, which the Germans attributed to discrimination. “We complained often, but we are mostly foreigners; and even yesterday, one of our Street Commissioners answered, ‘I don’t care if all Dutchmen die in one heap’. It seems Dutchmen are only good to vote and pay taxes. Election day they are dear friends, but afterwards damned Dutch”.

The 1854 Cholera epidemic was the third one in Newark’s history.

The Daily Advertiser conducted its own research into the problem and suggested that use of contaminated water was responsible for the recent outbreak. The Hill section was entirely dependent on well water, whereas the downtown area was supplied by the Newark Aqueduct Company with spring water. The substratum in the Hill section is composed of clay, shale, and rock and is therefore impervious. Consequently, instead of being absorbed, wastewater was running into the wells. The Advertiser noted “somewhat singular that during the recent ravages of the cholera in our city, the disease occurred principally in sections where well-water is used by families.” This theory was backed up by a study from a London anesthetist, Dr. John Snow, who had written a pamphlet in 1849 in which he argued that cholera was a contagious disease caused by an organic poison that attacked the intestines and was excreted in the feces of the patient. Epidemics occurred when the poisoned feces found its way into the water supply.

Taking heart from NYC’s success in fighting the disease, Newark began to erect sanitary cordons around the stricken. Cholera-infected homes were vacated and the bedding, personal effects, and excreta of the occupants were disinfected or destroyed. This measure prevented further epidemics in Newark but the continuing fear of cholera would influence events in Newark for many years to come. These events included questions concerning the water supply, plumbing, night soil removal, wells and the powers of the Board of Health.